By Kathy Taylor Ancar
I returned to New Orleans from my new home of Tallahassee, Florida to attend the graduation mass of sixty-one excited young women who had converged upon St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter on June 23rd to receive diplomas from St. Mary’s Academy; their Alma Mater, and mine. I had served as Alumnae Director pre-Katrina, and felt the need to be there to personally induct this new crop of graduates into the Alumnae Association.
I knew that returning would be difficult, so I decided to make it a fun trip, and play tourist. I booked a room at a very nice hotel in the French Quarter – something I had always wanted to do, but never got around to. I also planned to spend a couple of days riding through the city to see for myself what, if any, progress had been made since I last saw my home in December. What I saw broke my heart. Blighted houses now occupy spaces where once meticulously-landscaped brick homes stood; overgrown grass and trash replaced once picturesque parkways, and the once beautiful tree-lined campus of my beloved St. Mary’s Academy was barren, with the exception of the FEMA trailers that some of the nuns now call home.
Even before I turned to face him, I knew that although he tried to sound chipper, the crack in his voice would reveal that my cousin’s face was as contorted with pain as mine.
With eyes rapidly blinking in an attempt to hold back the flood of tears that stopped just short of toppling over, I walked through the French Quarter between my cousins, Farrell and Wilfred, staring at the beautiful old buildings as if seeing them for the first time.
“It feels strange,” I reply. “The buildings are the same. The sounds are the same. Even the smell is the same. But the spirit is gone. I’m not home.”
They both nodded, and we walked along for a few more blocks in silence. Although I had a camera in my purse, I felt no desire to take it out and snap any photos, which is strange for me, because since high school, I’ve carried a camera everywhere I go, and I’m always snapping a picture of something or some one! But, this place felt too strange to photograph. I had no desire to capture images of this New Orleans.
Later that night as I sat in my hotel room, I tried to sort through my feelings. The only way I can describe it is to say I felt like I had crossed over into Jerry Senifeld’s Bizzaro World. For non-Senifeld fans, it’s a zone where everything is opposite of how it should be. That’s what New Orleans has become for me. Bizzaro World.
The following night, while sitting in Ralph & Kakoo’s enjoying the food and company of a few more cousins who still live in the area, Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” played softly in the background. Simultaneously, we stopped eating, laughing and talking, and just listened to the words. I found comfort in the familiarity of Armstrong’s voice, and this time, I made no attempt to blink back the tears. It was time to let them flow. Somehow, hearing Louis Armstrong sing of his New Orleans made it okay for me to finally cry for mine.
I know full well what it means to miss my New Orleans. You see, for me and my very large extended family, New Orleans has always been so much more than the French Quarter and spicy food. Many of us lived within minutes of each other, and supported each other’s family’s events from little league games to graduations, to births, weddings and funerals. And now that we’re spread across the country from Dallas, to Houston, to Florida, to Kansas, to Gonzales, to Baton Rouge, and beyond; all that we took for granted is gone.
No more calling each other to say, “Hey! I’m cooking a pot of gumbo – come on over.” Or “It’s hot – let’s take a ride to get a snowball!” Today, our days are spent trying to build new lives in new cities, or attempting to rebuild old homes in New Orleans. Most of us are simply trying to make it day by day in a strange place – some of us, like me, are doing so alone. And it’s challenging.
With each passing week, we are faced with the ever-increasing reality that the family unit is no longer intact. Sometimes when we call each other, we cry. A year after the storm, although we try to remain upbeat and strong, when we talk to our children, siblings, grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews – we end many conversations in tears. We have lost so much. Not the material possessions, but the companionship, support, and camaraderie of family.
Literally within days of my arrival in Tallahassee in January, I landed a job and moved into a comfortable apartment. I chose to move here because my grown sons live in Pensacola – 2 ½ hours away. Also, I just wasn’t comfortable in Texas (where much of my family landed), and also because I have cousins here, one of whom had been trying to convince me to move here for years. She, in fact, helped me land my great new job. For that I am eternally grateful, and feel truly blessed.
The people here are warm and friendly, and the huge oak trees laden with Spanish moss remind me of City Park. In fact, much about Tallahassee reminds me of New Orleans. But, until I went back to New Orleans last week, I never considered Tallahassee my home. Now, I know that it is.
The day after I returned to Tallahassee, mentally exhausted, I casually commented to Jenny, a co-worker and new-found friend, “It feels good to be back home.”
She smiled and said, “Now, you see. That’s a good thing.”
“What? What’s a good thing?”
“You said home. You are home now, Kathy. And we’re glad to have you.”
The clichés say that home is where you make it; home is where you lay your head; home is where your heart is. Well, although my heart will always be in New Orleans; where I was born and raised, where my culture, my heritage, and my history are, and where my dear departed loved ones are buried, I now comfortably lay my head in Tallahassee – and it’s beginning to feel a lot like home!
Kathy Ancar is the editor of the African-American Village. Born and raised in New Orleans, she now calls Tallahassee, Florida home.